Rethinking avant-garde Dance embraces updates to modernist aesthetic

The Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet which last appeared at Spoleto in 2009, has become a hit with mainstream audiences.

When film director George Nolfi was casting his 2011 sci-fi thriller, “The Adjustment Bureau,” he wanted something real and edgy for his female-dancer protagonist. He found it in Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.

Rather than create a fictitious dance company like most Hollywood producers, Nolfi used actual members of the 9-year old troupe to perform alongside actress Emily Blunt’s character, even going so far as to reference Cedar Lake’s artistic director, Benoit-Swan Pouffer, in the movie.

Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet returns to the Spoleto stage June 1 fresh from its big screen debut. The company, which appeared at Spoleto in 2009, is known for presenting cutting-edge international choreographers and has become a hit with mainstream audiences. It was recently featured on the Fox show “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“There is a lot of interest in dance with young people, especially if they can relate to it,” said Arlene Shuler, president and CEO of New York City Center (and wife of Spoleto Festival General Director Nigel Redden). “Cedar Lake helps with that. Even if you may or may not get what’s going on, it’s very exciting to see highly trained dancers doing this work that is so strong. It’s not another pretty ballet.”

With choreography that stresses physical dynamism over narrative, and uses installation spaces rather than proscenium arches, Cedar Lake’s aesthetic is innovative and abstract.

College of Charleston Dance Program Director Gretchen McLaine likes how the company’s amalgam of classical ballet and modern training makes it difficult to assign Cedar Lake to any one box.

“They’re blurring the boundaries in the best of ways,” she said. “And I think that is what Modernism does: It helps kind of push this impetus for always exploring.”

But it wasn’t so long ago that publications such as The New Yorker magazine regularly parodied high modernism’s subjectivity and elitism through its classic cartoons. Modernism was said to be narcissistic. It was a fraud. It was dead.

Now modernism, or at least the modern version, is hot in all art forms. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City has seen a general increase in its annual attendance numbers, rising from 2.64 million in 2008 to 2.87 million by the end of last year. And it seems as if every young loft dweller lusts after Danish modern furniture. Modernism is not only hot, it’s convention.

Dancer Stephanie Bussell said the stripped-down nature of modern dance is a good antedote to a media-loaded environment that leans toward the weird.

“Attention spans are so limited today, you really need something to engage you,” she said. “Cedar Lake strips ballet of its traditional clothing and is trying to test the limits of what the body can do in a new way that’s visually interesting.”

For McLaine, today’s dance is a reflection of the art forms’ desire to connect with audiences through a unique expression. The concept of modernism, and its application in the arts, will only continue to evolve, she said.

“The natural process of art is the re-examination of ideas,” McLaine said. “The thing about modernism is it constantly brings about this reassessment of preconceived notions of what art is.”

Dani Villalobos is a New-house School graduate student.